With COVID-19, the case for sustainable transport is stronger than ever

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Cyclists, buses, and cars in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad of Bogotá
Cyclists, buses, and cars in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad of Bogotá

As cities gradually exit COVID-19 quarantines and reopen their economies, some observers are suggesting that public transport might increase contagion risk and that private cars should be considered the only safe alternative.

I see several issues with this. First, it is important to highlight that this stance is based on perception rather than facts. Second, promoting widespread car use could actually impede recovery and come with a host of negative side effects, especially for the poor.

In this blog series, I will explain why sustainable transport—public transport, walking, and biking—must become an integral part of our response to the pandemic, and how we can make this happen in a safe, sustainable way.

Let’s start by looking more closely at the current situation—from a public health, economic, social, and environmental standpoint—to see how urban mobility fits into the picture.


We need to keep people and economies moving

The International Labor Organization estimates that a whopping 1.6 billion people are at risk of losing their livelihoods. Many of them are informal workers who don’t have access to unemployment benefits or any other kind of social safety nets. Some 39 million people have already lost their jobs in the United States, and 31 million in Latin America. There is growing concern that many jobs lost to the pandemic will vanish forever, raising some serious questions about the future of the labor market, particularly in cities.

Furthermore, the ILO estimates that, globally, “more than 436 million enterprises face high risks of serious disruption.” Relatedly, up to 580 million people could fall into poverty, as estimated by the United Nations University. There is also a high probability that the health crisis may contribute to a hunger pandemic / could push another 130 million people to the brink of starvation.

These numbers show how even a short quarantine can hurt millions of people, particularly the poor. Now, imagine if these losses were permanent and the urban labor market collapsed. Poverty would skyrocket, middle classes would shrink, and tax revenue would plummet.

To avoid this scenario, countries are anxious to reignite their economies while minimizing contagion risk, which remains a major preoccupation worldwide. Transport will be a key piece of the equation: we must find ways to connect people to jobs, and to connect them as safely and sustainably as possible.


Sustainable transport and the call for a green recovery

As the world grapples with the pandemic and its economic fallout, we cannot forget about the climate crisis that has been looming over the last few decades. While the measures to lower the spread of the virus have temporarily reduced greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest in human history. Just last month, northern Siberia–above the Arctic Circle—experienced record-high temperatures that can melt the permafrost and release even more GHG into the atmosphere.

Clearly, decisionmakers at all levels must work toward a green recovery model that will help address the ongoing health, economic, and climate emergencies simultaneously. Moving toward sustainable transport will be a key part of that process: the transport sector already accounts for a quarter of energy-related emissions, and that number is poised to grow much higher over the next decade. Low-carbon transport can significantly reduce overall emissions, and, concurrently, will help us build more competitive, more inclusive communities –and be COVID-safe.


The Three Cs: Avoid Closed, Crowded, Close-Contact situations

So, what exactly should sustainable transport look like in the context of COVID-19? What are the transport modes and solutions we should prioritize? And, importantly, how should we adapt existing systems to minimize health risks?

To answer this, I will keep referring to the Three Cs framework: Closed spaces, Crowded spaces, and Close contact situations. According to the framework, the three Cs can drastically increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus, in particular where they overlap.

To minimize the risk of COVID-19 contagion, individuals should avoid the three Cs: Closed spaces, Crowded spaces, and Close contact situations.
Source: Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, Japan. Diagram by author.


Managing transport demand through home-based work

The best way to minimize the three Cs while preserving the economy is to have people work from home—a situation that applies mostly to “white-collar” workers with access to digital technology. These workers—myself included—can hold virtual meetings, continue to read and reply to emails, and can even make coffee and cook food at home. For a Covid-safe restart of economic activities, whoever can work from home should continue to do so: this will reduce transport demand and allow people who do need to travel to achieve proper physical distancing inside buses or metros, particularly during peak hours.

Whether home-based work is temporary or permanent is something that only the future will tell. But it is safe to say that the pandemic will have a lasting and dramatic impact on the way we manage office space. However, it is important to note that not all workers are coping well with home-based work, as indicated by the troubling increase in domestic violence, stress, and depression.


Providing safe mobility to those who need it

Yet home-based work for white collars is possible not only because of technology, but also because of the countless “blue-collar” and informal workers who leave their homes every morning to keep supply chains running, deliver packages, and restock the shelves of our local markets.

For those essential workers, the ability to get around is as important as ever—without a way to reach their jobs, most of them would likely lose their income and have no way to put food on the table. In my next two blog posts, I will analyze how we can leverage sustainable transport to provide safe, green, and efficient mobility for those who need it most, both during and after the pandemic. We will focus on public transport first, and then explore the potential of cycling and walking. Stay tuned!


Arturo Ardila-Gomez

Global Lead for Urban Mobility and Lead Transport Economist, World Bank

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